April 08, 2014, 11:39 am
Holder claims 'vast amount' of discretion in enforcing federal laws
By Benjamin Goad
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that he has a “vast amount” of discretion in how the Justice Department prosecutes the laws that are on the books.
Holder’s remarks, during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, came in response to GOP accusations that he is flouting the law with its positions on marijuana legalization and criminal sentencing.
Leading the questioning was House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who asked Holder whether he believed there were any limits to the administration’s prosecutorial discretion.
“There is a vast amount of discretion that a president has — and more specifically that an attorney general has,” Holder responded. “But that discretion has to be used in an appropriate way so that your acting consistent with the aims of the statute but at the same time making sure that you are acting in a way that is consistent with our values, consistent with the Constitution and protecting the American people."
Republicans on the panel grilled Holder on the Obama administration’s decision not to interfere with marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and elsewhere, as long as states establish adequate regulations.
Goodlatte criticized the decision, saying it is tantamount to ignoring the law.
“The Justice Department’s decision not to enforce the Controlled Substances Act in states whose laws violate federal law is not a valid exercise of prosecutorial discretion, but a formal department-wide policy of selective non-enforcement of an Act of Congress,” Goodlatte said.
Under Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, the Justice Department has altered the charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug crimes.
“This commonsense change will ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers,” Holder said.
Democrats on the panel lauded the move. Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the committee’s top Democrat, said almost half of all federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses.
But Goodlatte said charging decisions meant to avoid triggering “mandatory minimum” sentences would put the government’s attorney at odds with the law.
“The attorney general’s directive, along with contradicting an act of Congress, puts his own front-line prosecutors in the unenviable position of either defying their boss or violating their oath of candor to the court,” he said.
Holder also faced questions from Republicans on the legality of Obama administration's decision to delay the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
In a terse back and forth with Holder, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) argued that because an implementation date had been written specifically into the legislation, the executive branch had no authority to delay it.
“When Congress puts effective dates in laws, do we need to further state that the effective date cannot be waived or modified by the executive branch, or is the president required to follow the law, and also follow the dates set by Congress?" Chabot asked.
Holder responded that “the president has the duty, obviously, to follow the law,” but that “it would depend on the statute” and statutory interpretation of the law.
Holder said the Department of Justice provided legal analysis to the administration regarding the delay, but that his agency doesn’t discuss those arguments publicly.